In 1984, opening a blues lounge in Logan Square made little business sense. The neighborhood was (and still is) predominantly Hispanic, had a moderate gang problem, and was decidedly far-flung in relation to Chicago’s other blues hubs on the south and north sides. “People already had some preexisting judgment about Logan Square if you go back 30 years ago,” Tony Mangiullo says. “The idea of a blues club here was absolutely crazy. It still is.”
His mama didn’t see it that way.
That year Rosa Mangiullo was in town from her native Milan, Italy, to visit her son, Tony, when she found a building for sale on Armitage just west of Kimball, a street-level bar with an apartment upstairs. Tony had immigrated to Chicago in the late 70s to follow his dream of becoming a blues drummer after he met Buddy Guy and Junior Wells at a European music festival. As Tony tells it, Wells gave the aspiring musician two addresses—to his home and the now defunct Theresa’s Lounge on Indiana and 48th—and told him to come find him if he ever came to Chicago. Several months later, Tony was knocking on Wells’s door and was on his way to becoming a fixture at Theresa’s. By ’84, Tony had established himself as a reliable drummer, gigging with guys like Big Mojo Elem and Sir Walter Scott at a sketchy place at Roosevelt and Ashland called Necktie Nate’s that’s long gone. To this day he says all he really wants is to play, but his entrepreneurial mother—she and her husband, who passed away in the 70s, owned a fruit and vegetable business in Italy—had her sights set on a bar of their own. And so Rosa’s visit became indefinite.
These days Rosa is silver haired and stooped from years spent reaching into an ice well. Sitting at the bar during off-hours, she recalls in a gravy-thick Italian accent a visit to Kingston Mines in Lincoln Park before she and Tony opened their bar; she found Kingston’s proximity to other nightlife aggravating. “I like to stay away,” she says. “I come here [to Logan Square] and I say, ‘I can make a blues here.'”
She was right. Rosa’s Lounge celebrated its 31st anniversary in February, and earlier this month its namesake turned 82. Through three decades, the neighborhood around the place has changed dramatically—but things are largely the same inside Rosa’s, from the ancient-looking hardwood floors to the cast of characters onstage. A lot of the players who’ve been there from the beginning still perform regularly: harmonica player Billy Branch, who performed at the grand opening party; Sugar Blue, who famously blew the harp hook on the Rolling Stones hit “Miss You”; and guitarist Melvin Taylor, whom Rosa calls her “second son.”
Through the bar, Rosa discovered something greater than just a livelihood in her adopted home. “I think Mama kind of found her own outlet to be the adventurous person she wanted to be but she never could,” Tony says. “Finally coming to Chicago was kind of a liberation for her. It happened late in her life, but it happened.”
“I love the blues, I love the music,” Rosa says. “I am happy.”